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How John Lewis and Other Civil Rights Crusaders Expected Arrests

How John Lewis and Other Civil Rights Crusaders Expected Arrests


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Activists who practiced civil disobedience in the 1960s knew their opponents wouldn’t show them civility in return. Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement who co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was arrested 40 times between 1960 and 1966 for protesting racist laws and practices in the Jim Crow South. During the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights on March 7, 1965, state troopers and “deputized” white men beat him so badly they fractured his skull.

Lewis, who died on July 17, 2020 at age 80, often spoke of what he called “good trouble.” Getting arrested for trying to march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge—which bears the name of a Ku Klux Klan leader—was an example of this. Speaking atop the same bridge 55 years after the events of that day, known as “Bloody Sunday,” he urged listeners to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”

LISTEN ON APPLE PODCASTS: Freedom Summer, 1964

The Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-Ins

Lewis’ first arrest was during a lunch counter sit-in in 1960. On February 1 of that year, four Black college students had sat at a “whites-only” lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. As expected, the staff refused to serve them; but the students refused to leave. They remained in their seats and stayed until closing. The next day, they came back with more students to do it again.

The Greensboro sit-ins sparked a wave of similar protests in which students protested lunch counters’ racist policies by publicly violating them. Lewis, Diane Nash and other members of the Nashville Student Movement began organizing sit-ins in their city. On February 27, Lewis sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Nashville where angry white patrons beat him and his fellow protestors and tried to pull them off their seats. When the police arrived, it was the protestors, not the attackers, whom they arrested. This was 20-year-old Lewis’ first arrest.

“I didn't necessarily want to go to jail,” he recalled in a 1973 interview for the Southern Oral History Program. “But we knew…it would help solidify the student community and the Black community as a whole. The student community did rally. The people heard that we had been arrested and before the end of the day, five hundred students made it into the downtown area to occupy other stores and restaurants. At the end of the day ninety-eight of us were in jail.”

The pressure worked: That spring, lunch counters in Nashville began serving Black customers.

The Freedom Riders

The next year, student activists traveled through the south on public buses to protest the federal government’s refusal to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1960 ruling in Boynton v. Virginia that segregated public transportation was unconstitutional. Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders who started off on May 4, 1961 in Washington, D.C. Many more joined the trip or started their own Freedom Rides that summer. One of those who joined was Lewis’ fellow Nashville activist Reverend C.T. Vivian, who died at age 95 on July 17, 2020, the same day as Lewis.

READ MORE: Follow the Freedom Riders’ Journey Against Segregation During the Civil Rights Era

The first violent attack on the Freedom Riders came only five days into their journey, when Lewis attempted to enter the “white” waiting room in the Greyhound terminal in Rock Hill, South Carolina. A group of angry white men beat up Lewis and two other Freedom Riders. On May 14, a white mob in Anniston, Alabama set fire to a bus carrying nine Freedom Riders and then beat up the passengers.

White mobs continued to attack Freedom Riders in Birmingham, where the city’s police commissioner arrested Lewis and his fellow riders. Afterward, the commissioner drove them to a remote area near the Tennessee border known for Klan terrrorism and left them there. In Jackson, Mississippi, police officers arrested Lewis, Vivian and other Freedom Riders, sending them to Parchman Farm. At the infamously brutal state penitentiary, guards beat them and forced them to work on the penitentiary’s massive farm without pay.

READ MORE: “Does an Exception Clause in the 13th Amendment Still Permit Slavery?”

Once again, the arrests drew national attention—as activists hoped they would—putting pressure on officials to act. That fall, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally enforced Boynton v. Virginia by demanding that interstate bus services integrate their bus seating and terminals.

The Legacy of ‘Good Trouble’

After the Freedom Rides, Lewis continued to play a key role in the civil rights movement. In June 1963 he became the chairman of SNCC. The next month, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

“We are tired of being beaten by policemen,” he told the crowd from the Lincoln Memorial. “We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.”

For the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Lewis “live-tweeted” the day as he’d experienced it. “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. My legs went out from under me,” he wrote. “I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die.” TV stations broadcast the violent footage around the country in 1965, pressuring the government to act by passing the Voting Rights Act later that year.

In 1987, Lewis became a U.S. Congressman, representing Georgia’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He held the position until his death in 2020. Yet even as a Congressman, he continued to get into what he called “good trouble.” His last arrest was on October 8, 2013. Posting a picture of it online, he tweeted: “Arrest number 45, protesting in support of comprehensive immigration reform.”


The Last Dreamer

This article originally appeared in our August 2003 issue.

As John Lewis crests the Edmund Pettus Bridge, voices sweep around him and build into a crescendo. His head is bowed, prayerful. His eyes are damp. He is weary, but as he reaches the pinnacle of the bridge over the Alabama River and looks out to the other side, a burden lifts. He sees a very different world from March 7, 1965, when he was a slender and serious young man of 25 who helped lead a group of more than 600 marchers across the bridge toward Montgomery to demand the right to vote.

It became known as “Bloody Sunday,” one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement. As the marchers crossed the Pettus Bridge, they were attacked by Alabama state troopers armed with clubs, tear gas and cattle prods. The televised images of the police brutality stunned the nation and mobilized support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Today, almost 40 years later, the 63-year-old Lewis-now a U.S. congressman from Atlanta-is again greeted by Alabama state troopers. Only now they have stopped traffic to protect the phalanx of marchers.

The crowd halts, hushes. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth stretches his arms wide to offer a blessing. An air of respect falls upon them Shuttlesworth, a civil rights icon, once faced off against the infamous Bull Connor in Birmingham. His hair is graying now, but his voice is still strong and his presence is uplifting.

“We didn’t get where we are from our own strength,” Shuttlesworth cries.

“So many times, you have delivered us from the jaws of death.”

“So thank you, Lord, that you are the deliverer.”

“Neither the Red Sea nor the Selma bridge could stop your purpose.”

“Thank you for moving human history and letting me know that you are the power.”

John Lewis raises his head and marches forward, past the spot where a trooper cracked his skull with a nightstick and knocked him unconscious as screaming marchers tumbled over each other, trying to escape the blows and the suffocating clouds of tear gas.

He comes back here every other year to march again. Every year, he sanctifies those moments of terror. Every year, he seeks to regain something precious he possessed on that bridge. “I come back to be inspired,” says Lewis. “I come back to renew my own self, my own being. I come back to get my own sense of hope.”

Lewis has lost his hair, and the old scar from the Pettus Bridge beating is now visible on his shiny pate. Over the years the pounds have rounded his 5-foot-6 frame, and he has deep creases beneath his eyes. But beyond the natural effects of aging, his old friends from the civil rights movement find that he has changed very little. He still speaks with the inflection of rural Alabama, with a preacher-like musical cadence, and, when necessary, with indignant force. He still remembers who was with him each step of the way, from the children who joined the marches, to the singers who chanted “Freedom Songs,” to the leaders by his side.

The world around him, though, has transformed. In 1965, Selma had only a handful of black voters. Today, it has a black mayor. Back then, espousing an interracial society was dangerous and radical. Today, when Lewis speaks of an America without a fixation on race, he just sounds hopelessly Utopian.

His congressional office in downtown Atlanta is crammed with mementos of Lewis’ place in history. In one framed photo, a trooper in Selma is poised to strike a blow with his nightstick as Lewis, on his knees, tries to shield his head. Miniature chickens are scattered on a shelf, reminding Lewis of his rural roots. Beside them rests another photo, this on with a pose of the “Big Six,” the six civil rights leaders who planned the March on Washington 40 years ago this month: Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, Whitney Young and John Lewis. Of them, only Lewis is still alive.

On all his walls, the past is frozen in a black and white panorama. But to Lewis, those photos catalog just the first steps in a very long march toward a better world. And he’s still marching. Fighting for health care for the uninsured, protection of the environment, campaign reform-those are some of his “civil rights” planks of the 21st century. Opposing the war in Iraq and tax cuts for the rich-those votes are a matter of principle. “Laying down the burden of race” is his ultimate quest. He sees it as the redemption of the American soul, and he wants to bring people of all races together into a colorblind society that he refers to as the “Beloved Community.”

“If I’m the last dreamer, if I’m the last person to believe in the Beloved Community, then I will be that last dreamer,” he says in a voice suddenly rising in passion. “Because I think the idea of a Beloved Community is one of those immutable principles that you cannot deviate from.” Since his election in 1986, he has been dubbed the “conscience of Congress.” But in 2003, those accolades don’t necessarily mean very much. These days, it’s not enough to remain true to the dreams that he and King and the other civil rights crusaders outlined. In a world of skepticism and self-interest, he must prove that it is still relevant and worthy to dream at all.

John Lewis rises at 5 a.m. every morning, reads the newspapers, and takes a little time to gather his thoughts. When in Atlanta, he listens to a gospel station. The words of one song with a jaunty beat has captured his imagination: Dont let the devil steal your joy. That sentiment lightens his step as he walks to the Cannon House Office Building on his way to morning meetings. “I made up my mind that I’m not going to let anyone steal my sense of happiness or joy,” he says. So even when the nation is fighting a war he opposes and the president has cut a program he cherishes, he tries to keep an upbeat demeanor. Hopeful, if not happy.

“People have accused me of being too optimistic,” he says. “Not to be hopeful is to give up. If you believe that things are going to change, you have to make it come about. You cannot get lost in a sea of despair.” That is a good perspective for someone who is charged with raising the morale of the minority party. As senior chief deputy whip, third in line in party leadership, Lewis’s eternal optimism makes him the perfect standard-bearer for the Democrats, who have been out of power in the House since the Republican revolution of 1994.

Lewis unapologetically represents the liberal wing of the Democratic Party-the National Journal labeled him the third most liberal member of the House. But his life transcends his role as a lawmaker. He is a genuine American hero, a living symbol of the worst and greatest moments of a nation. “He has endured the test of time,” says the Reverend Jesse Jackson. “John has moral authority. He speaks with a moral resonance. I admire him. I look up to him, really.

It is that moral dictate that defines Lewis both personally and politically. When Newt Gingrich became embroiled in ethics violations, Lewis was one of his fiercest critics. When Bill Clinton faced impeachment for improprieties, Lewis was his staunchest ally. Politics as usual, some sneered. But then comes an issue-campaign finance reform, for example-in which Lewis breaks ranks with the Congressional Black Caucus or allies with a Republican conservative.

Last year, Lewis publicly forgave Senator Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) for his statements lauding the segregationist past of Senator Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina). It was a metaphorical moment in which he could forgive white Southerners for their misguided hatred. “It’s very much in keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence to believe that people can change,” says Lewis. “We wanted to change people and for them to be reconciled to us.”

His efforts to educate the nation are relentless. Every other year, he takes a congressional entourage on a civil rights pilgrimage to Alabama, sponsored by The Faith & Politics Institute, an interfaith group he co-chairs with a Republican congressman. The Trent Lott affair put the trip in the spotlight this year, and it attracted two U.S. senators, presidential candidate Richard Gephardt, Democratic Caucus chair Robert Menendez, about 25 other representatives, former Housing and Urban Development secretary Jack Kemp and comedian Chris Tucker.

At 63, Lewis is a lion in winter, hoping today’s young people are ready to carry on. He was heartened one day this spring when he walked from the Capitol to the U.S. Supreme Court and stood before hundreds of college students rallying in support of affirmative action.

“It appears another generation of students has been awakened to be active,” Lewis said after the rally. “It reminded me of the sixties, really, when young students, black and white, cared enough to go on a Freedom Ride.”

Yet, ironically, the rally was sponsored by a group called BAMN-By Any Means Necessary. The national student group takes its title from a slogan of Malcolm X-who espoused a black power creed, the antithesis of Lewis’ Beloved Community.

Like BAMN, not everyone agrees with Lewis’ expansive worldview. In 1995, Georgia State Representative Tyrone Brooks mobilized Georgians to join the Million Man March and begged Lewis to join him. Brooks envisioned a powerful movement where black men accepted personal responsibility, where they would rid themselves of abusive behaviors and join together for greater good. But Lewis couldn’t reconcile King’s dream with minister Louis Farrakhan’s black power stand, his vilifying comments about Jews, whites and homosexuals.

“He wanted it to be all male,” says Lewis. “He wanted it to be all black. I didn’t want to be associated with it.”

Lewis is standing in the cramped preacher’s office of First Baptist Church in Montgomery. As if it happened just yesterday, he can see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in the chair and greeting him for the first time.

Lewis’ deep voice echoes in the woodpaneled basement as he recreates the moment. “Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?”

“Yes, sir. I am John Robert Lewis.” With that greeting, Lewis announced his entry into a lifelong pursuit for social justice.

He was born on February 21,1940 on a tenant farm in Troy, Alabama, a place of cotton fields, dirt roads and pine forests. One day, he saw the signs at the bus station marking the restrooms “White Men,” “Colored Men,” “White Women,” “Colored Women,” and he asked his parents, “Why?”

“That’s the way it is,” they said.

Lewis has never accepted that answer. As a teenager, he listened to Dr. King on the radio. He learned about Rosa Parks. His activism began when he was 16 and went to the county library to ask for a library card. The librarian told him the library was for whites only.

The need to do something burned in him. He enrolled at American Baptist Theological Seminary, a small black school in Nashville that gave ministerial students their education, room and board in exchange for work. But he hadn’t even finished his first year when he applied for a transfer to Troy State College, an all-white college 10 miles from his home. He got no response.

Lewis wrote to Dr. King, telling him of his desire to go to Troy State. The civil rights leader sent him a bus ticket to Montgomery, and Lewis met with King in that church basement. Just 18 years old, scrawny and naive but bold, Lewis stood in awe.

King said they would help him attempt to integrate Troy State-if his parents agreed. Fearing a backlash that could threaten their lives, Lewis’ parents said no.

He returned to Nashville, where Lewis learned about nonviolent philosophy and became involved with the budding student-led civil rights movement in the city. The Nashville students merged into the new, national Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which Lewis would eventually lead. By 1959, he was organizing biracial sit-ins at Nashville’s whites-only lunch counters. Getting arrested became commonplace he was beaten or abused untold times. “We’d be sitting there in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion, waiting to be served,” he says. “And someone would come up and spit on us. Put a lighted cigarette out in our hair or down our backs. Pull us off the lunch counter stool. Beat us.”

The protesters refused to strike back. They accepted nonviolence as a way of life. “Means and ends are inseparable,” says Lewis. “If you want to create the Beloved Community, then the way must be one of love, one of peace, one of nonviolence.”

In 1961, Lewis was the youngest of a group of black and white activists who climbed aboard a Greyhound bus and a Trailways bus in Washington, D.C., headed for a “Freedom Ride” through the Deep South to test the U.S. Supreme Court decision that banned segregation in terminals used for interstate travel. At each stop, blacks would enter the whites-only waiting rooms, restrooms and lunch counters.

On the first leg of the Freedom Ride, Lewis was punched in the face as he tried to enter a bus terminal in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He had to temporarily leave the procession after that, but planned to link back up with the Freedom Riders in Birmingham. The next day, the Greyhound reached Anniston, Alabama. A mob surrounded it and when the bus driver decided to drive away, about 50 cars followed in hot pursuit. They caught the bus and attacked the windows with pipes. Someone threw a firebomb into the bus and the mob blocked the doors until a policeman riding on the bus pulled his gun and threatened to shoot unless they backed away.

Riders on the Trailways bus were attacked in Anniston, but managed to escape and drive on to Birmingham. What they didn’t know was that another mob was waiting there to ambush them. The Birmingham police had promised the mob 15 unmolested minutes alone with the protesters before they would intercede. When the bus reached Birmingham, the riders were pulled off and brutally beaten.

Lewis and 10 other Nashville students were aboard another Greyhound bus bound for Birmingham two days later. Police commissioner Bull Connor met them at the station, jailed them briefly and then personally led a convoy of three unmarked police station wagons to drive them out of town. He dropped them off at the Tennessee line in the middle of the night.

Lewis and the others from Nashville made a jubilant return to Birmingham the next day, boldly defying Bull Connor. With frantic phone calls and intervention from President Kennedy, the riders boarded another Greyhound bus headed to Montgomery, this time escorted by a phalanx of Alabama state troopers.

The city police promised to protect the Freedom Riders, so the troopers let them go into the Alabama capital alone. But the police mysteriously disappeared just as the bus arrived and the mob attacked just as Lewis stepped off the

bus to address a throng of reporters. Lewis was bashed in the back of the head with a Coca-Cola crate and knocked unconscious. He later took refuge in the First Baptist Church, the very place he had first met King.

“I don’t think I’ve seen another leader who put himself in harm’s way more than John for the cause,” says Bernard LaFayette Jr., a Nashville classmate of Lewis who now runs the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island. “I really didn’t expect him to survive the Movement. He was undaunted. It bordered on foolish courage.”

By August 28, 1963, the lurid images from the South had stirred the nation. Thousands of people ascended on Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the greatest moment of the civil rights movement. An estimated 300,000 people spilled out onto the grass and pavement around the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial. It was one of the first news events to ever be broadcast live on television.

The speakers were to be the elite figures of the movement, and one of them was to be John Lewis. He planned to criticize the Kennedy Civil Rights Bill as “too little, too late.” Yet, the point of the whole march was to support the bill. And frantic civil rights leaders lobbied Lewis all week to tone down his speech.

As Joan Baez sang “Oh Freedom” and as Bob Dylan joined Peter, Paul and Mary for “Blowing in the Wind,” the fierce debate continued behind the speaker’s platform. Lewis finally agreed to take out the offensive language. Still, his words were fierce and to the point. “We must say, ‘Wake up, America! Wake up!'” Lewis told the massive crowd. “For we cannot stop, and we will not be patient.”

Then, sitting in the shadow of Lincoln, a few steps away from the podium, Lewis listened to King’s majestic voice intone the words that would echo through the ages: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood… ”

It was the doctrine of the Beloved Community.

At a party on New Year’s Eve in 1967, a friend introduced Lewis to a woman from Los Angeles named Lillian Miles, who worked at Atlanta University as the assistant circulation librarian.

Less than a year later, Lewis asked her to marry him, and the couple settled into the modest home in Southwest Atlanta where they still live today. They adopted a son, John-Miles Lewis, and Lewis began working for voter education. Under President Jimmy Carter he had served as associate director of ACTION, helping to run a service agency that functioned as a domestic Peace Corps.

Lewis won a seat on the Atlanta City Council, then ran for U.S. Congress in 1986 in a field of 12 candidates. “A workhorse, not a showhorse” became his slogan and it was aimed at just one opponent-Julian Bond, the most glamorous of the civil rights icons who also happened to be Lewis’ close friend back from the days when Bond was SNCC’s communications director. Bond had even helped polish the speech that Lewis wrote for the March on Washington.

The match-up evoked nothing but pain for Atlanta ‘s black community. Some people were angry at Lewis. “You shouldn’t do this,” they said. “You can’t win.” He received very little support from his fellow black elected officials.

Lewis campaigned with a dogged tenacity, sometimes stopping at all-night grocery stores after midnight to shake a few more hands. He battled Bond to a runoff. Tensions rose higher when Bond challenged Lewis to debate. “He was accused of being cowardly, ducking debates,” recalls Kevin Ross, a political consultant who guided Lewis through those weeks. “The concept of being called cowardly really seemed to get under John’s skin.”

And that’s when Lewis did something that contradicted his gentle, saintly image: He went low-brow and challenged Julian Bond, his friend, to take a drug test. “We can go outside and go to the men’s room and take the test right now,” Lewis said at one point.

Bond tried to deflect it, but the drug test challenge amplified the whispers that swirled about him. It was a time of “Just Say No,” of rampant cocaine use among the famous and wealthy. The drug test challenge became the key moment of the campaign.

If the negative campaigning seems out of character with Lewis’ saintly image-a win-at-any-cost, even the loss of a close friend, mindset-he still makes no apologies. He thinks Bond fired the first salvo by implying that Lewis, who had taken pipes in the face, was a coward. “I think a lot of people thought because I’m such a nice guy, I would be a pushover,” Lewis says. “But if you push me in the corner, I will push back, in the most nonviolent manner I know how.”

Lewis won with 52 percent of the vote. The relationship between Bond and Lewis has never recovered. Lewis’ memoir, Walking with the Wind, published in 1998, portrays Bond as someone reluctant to lead and overly enamored of the limelight. Bond, who is now national chairman of the NAACP and a professor at American University and the University of Virginia, lauds Lewis for doing “a excellent job, a wonderful job” as congressman. He teaches his college students about Lewis’ acts of bravery. But he also acknowledges that all is not well between the two. “I was terribly upset by the attacks and by the characterization of me in his book,” says Bond.

For his part, Lewis does not express regret about how he conducted the campaign. But he does seem genuinely wistful about the impact it had on a longstanding friendship. “I never, ever want to go through another campaign like that,” says Lewis. “I never, ever want to be in a campaign against someone 1 consider a friend.”

Julian Bond is the last opponent of consequence that Lewis has faced. With every term, his job becomes more secure. He was unopposed in his ninth election in 2002, and the job is likely to be his as long as he wants it. “He always says he’s ‘ going to cut back, and he doesn’t cut back,” says his wife, Lillian, without reproach. “Sometimes, he’ll come to the point and say, ‘Oh, I think may stay two years or four years.’ But most often he says he plans to be carried out of the Capitol feet first. I think that’s really how he feels about it.”

She says they have a comfortable marriage even though he spends much of his time in Washington, D.C. while she stays in Atlanta. “My niece said that I’ve made a life that’s comfortable for me as he has for himself,” Lillian says. “John was that person before I met him. I’m not a clingy person. His life makes him happy.”

His district has become his own Beloved Community, where people stop him in the streets and thank him for some help he has given them. Yet Lewis’ appeal stems not just from his politics or his idealism, or even his heroism. He is the quintessential “nice guy.” At a fundraising event during the NBA All-Star Weekend in Atlanta, Lewis noticed some of the waiters gazing in awe at comedian Chris Tucker. Lewis walked over, then took them to meet Tucker.

One thing that people don’t know about Lewis is that he loves to make people laugh. He is an excellent mimic of voices. He will tease his wife about being an “armchair revolutionary” because she grew up in Los Angeles and watched the civil rights movement unfold on television. “I don’t think his sense of humor comes across in public,” she says. “He’s not a joke-teller. But he makes observations about people and how they really are.”

On one Saturday last spring, Lewis was in high spirits as he strode through the downtown Macy’s just before it closed its doors for good, eager to check out the bargains in the store’s waning days. Every few steps he paused to give his condolences to the store clerks-whom he knew by name-or to shake a few hands.

Lewis occasionally holds a Constituent Day, when anyone can make an appointment to talk to him in the district office. He prides himself on personally greeting any visitor from the state who happens by his Capitol office-peanut farmers from South Georgia, insurance underwriters from Albany, teachers from Macon. “I see ’em because they’re from Georgia,” he says.

In his congressional office, the New South comes to greet him, and he embraces this cavalcade. This is the world as he wants it to be: one family, one house, the American house.

Late at night, when Congress has adjourned and his wife is still in Atlanta, John Lewis emerges from his Washington, D.C. townhouse and takes a long walk. There may be a song in his head, or the voices from some debate, or a problem that’s bothering him.

Eventually, he’ll end up at the marble monuments to America’s historical leaders. He’ll read the words they spoke that roused a nation, or calmed it. He’ll think about his own odd journey, from sharecropping poverty in Alabama to the halls of Congress. He’ll stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech echoing in his ears, as if the great man were still alive and speaking.

Lewis hopes to be back at the speaker’s platform for the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington, where he’ll exhort the nation to march on toward a Beloved Community.

But his real commemoration will come after the crowds are gone. He plans to walk alone to the steps of the monument and stare up at the larger-than-life statue of Lincoln. “I want to go back and stand where we stood on August 28, 1963,” he says. “Reflect on the words of Dr. King.”

The past will swirl around him, not as something haunting, but as a force. The spirit of history, Lewis calls it. The spirit of hope.


‘Conscience of the Congress’

While Mr. Lewis represented Atlanta, his natural constituency was disadvantaged people everywhere. Known less for sponsoring major legislation than for his relentless pursuit of justice, he was called “the conscience of the Congress” by his colleagues.

When the House voted in December 2019 to impeach President Trump, Mr. Lewis’s words rose above the rest. “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something,” he said on the House floor. “To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”

His words resonated as well after he saw the video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as Mr. Floyd gasped for air.

“It was so painful, it made me cry,” Mr. Lewis told “CBS This Morning.” “People now understand what the struggle was all about,” he said. “It’s another step down a very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.”


Remembering John Lewis

In a moment when Black Lives Matter has succeeded in bringing longstanding police abuses to public attention, Lewis’s legacy has never been more visible.

Nicolaus Mills &squarf July 20, 2020 John Lewis speaking at the 1963 March on Washington (Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

Looking back on the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 two decades later in an essay for Dissent, John Lewis found himself still moved by his memory of that period in his life. “Most of all there was an all-pervading sense that one was involved in a movement larger than oneself, almost like a Holy Crusade, an idea whose time had come,” he wrote.

Lewis never stopped believing that the civil rights movement was sacred, and he felt the same way about the current Black Lives Matter protest. Watching the video of George Floyd’s death made him cry, he acknowledged, but he was also encouraged by the response to Floyd’s death. “It was very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets, to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble,’” Lewis told CBS’s This Morning.

In 1964, Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and already a civil rights veteran at just twenty-four. After leaving his home in Troy, Alabama, and entering American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, Lewis quickly rebelled at the constraints he was expected to follow in the South he was born into in 1940. He put his life on the line by participating in Freedom Rides and lunch counter sit-ins in defiance of Jim Crow laws.

As SNCC chairman, Lewis was instrumental in the planning for Freedom Summer, an effort to register Black voters and begin Freedom Schools in the state most violently opposed to the civil rights movement. An amalgam of civil rights organizations led by the SNCC recruited college students to join them in Mississippi in an undertaking designed to draw the attention of the nation. “If we can crack Mississippi, we will likely be able to crack the system in the rest of the country,” Lewis hoped. The following year, on a day that became known as Bloody Sunday, the beating Lewis and other demonstrators took at the hands of Alabama State Troopers in Selma on a voting rights march became national news, played over and over on television.

In a year in which the Black Lives Matter movement has succeeded in bringing longstanding police abuses to public attention, Lewis’s legacy has never been more visible. What has not, unfortunately, gotten the attention it deserves is the political vision accompanying Lewis’s activism. That political vision is, however, very much present in his writing, particularly in the speech he sought to make at the 1963 March on Washington but never got to deliver as he intended.

Lewis did not get the chance because Archbishop Patrick J. O’Boyle of Washington, D.C., found that Lewis’s text was too radical and threatened to withdraw from the march program unless Lewis modified his text. O’Boyle won the day, but a half century later, one cannot help but wish that Lewis, under pressure from the senior march organizers to heed O’Boyle and be a team player, had given the speech he originally wrote.

Lewis’s original speech was one the country needed to hear as an accompaniment to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Read today, Lewis’s text is still prescient. He set the tone early on when he complained of the shortcomings of the civil rights legislation the Kennedy administration was proposing. “In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late,” Lewis declared. “There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.”

The changes the country required could not be limited to incremental ones, Lewis argued. “We are now involved in a serious revolution,” he contended. What particularly worried him was that neither Democrats nor Republicans were thoroughly committed to fundamental racial change: “We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.”

Those who counseled patience had no sense of what Black Americans were enduring, said Lewis. Patience is a “dirty and nasty word,” he declared. “We want our freedom, and we want it now,” he insisted. The corollary to this argument for rapid change was that the civil rights movement needed to mobilize its supporters on a large scale and take matters into its own hands. “We all recognize,” he wrote, “the fact that if any radical social, political, and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.” In other words, the civil rights movement needed to commit itself to more direct action once it gained sufficient strength.

“The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington,” he predicted. In language that especially upset Archbishop O’Boyle, Lewis delivered a peroration that evoked the Civil War: “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently.” The results, Lewis believed, would be transformative. “We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.”

Lewis’s closing words, written in all capital letters, were “WAKE UP AMERICA!” How long Lewis expected America to take before it woke up he did not say, but as he showed both in the 1960s and in a political career as a Georgia Congressman that began in 1987 and lasted until his death, Lewis did not tire when change did not go as he wanted. In 2001, he boycotted George W. Bush’s inauguration because he believed the Supreme Court had arbitrarily stopped a recount of the Florida vote that would have given the election to Al Gore. In 2016, he led a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to protest inaction on gun control. In 2017 he boycotted Trump’s inauguration, arguing it was illegitimate due to Russian interference in the election. Getting arrested at least forty-five times during a lifetime of activism only seemed to renew Lewis’s political stamina. To the end, he remained a relentless giant.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.


How intrepid civil rights crusaders worked their miracle on National Mall in Washington, D.C.

A t 6 am. on Aug. 28, 1963, Bayard Rustin strode rapidly across the National Mall.

As the lead organizer of the massive March on Washington — which was set to kick off in a matter of hours — Rustin needed to take a last, nervous look around.

He'd spent the last several months plotting, strategizing, fundraising and even arm-twisting for this event, which he expected would bring at least 100,000 people to the nation's capitol.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would take place under the watchful eyes of President John F. Kennedy, and a country and Congress divided on the idea of passing a bill that would end segregation.

Even as Rustin stepped briskly toward the Lincoln Memorial, picturing how the day's activities would unfold, members of the National Guard and other military were quietly moving to posts on the outskirts of the city, forming a ring around D.C., as the wary Kennedy braced for potential violence.

Absolutely nothing could go wrong, Rustin knew.

At his side was his northeast coalition builder Norman Hill, a 30-year-old organizer from the Congress of Racial Equality. They had spent a tense night together inside a suite at the Hilton, nailing down every detail, while the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other march leaders tried to reassure the White House yet again that the event would be peaceful.

As the two men drew closer to the rally site, a pack of journalists already amassed there recognized Rustin's wiry, 51-year-old frame, constantly wreathed in smoke from the Pall Mall cigarettes he chain-smoked.

"Where are the people, Rustin? What's going on? Is the march really going to happen?" the reporters asked, crowding around him and nudging Hill to the side.

Rustin, smiling genially, put his cigarette in his mouth and rummaged in his pocket for a round watch, which he popped open.

Then he pulled out a piece of paper and made a great show of staring back and forth at the two.

"Everything is right on schedule," he told the journalists. "It's all going as planned."
Hill, listening quietly, was the only one in the group who knew the paper Rustin flourished was actually blank.

There was indeed a plan for how the day should go — in fact, a meticulous one.

But nobody was sure the hordes of people headed that very moment to the heart of D.C. — on buses, planes, trains, cars and even some on foot — would follow it.

Five months earlier, in New York City, A. Philip Randolph had reached the end of his patience.

The legendary civil rights and union leader was 74, and savvy enough to realize his energy — and to some degree his political clout — might be on the wane.

Born in Florida in 1889, the son of a Methodist preacher who moonlighted as a tailor and a seamstress mother, Randolph had been one of the pre-eminent black figures in America for more than a quarter of a century.

An ardent, aggressive proponent of desegregation in the workplace, Randolph shot to national prominence in 1941, when he threatened a monumental march on Washington unless President Franklin D. Roosevelt allowed blacks to apply for defense industry jobs.

With World War II about to embroil the U.S., Randolph wanted black workers to benefit from the surge in public sector employment. But he needed Roosevelt to sign an executive order making it illegal for federal defense contractors to discriminate, or colored workers didn't stand a chance.

Faced with the prospect of thousands of disenfranchised blacks flooding downtown D.C., Roosevelt at the last moment capitulated to his demand. It was a huge victory, and true to his word, Randolph canceled his march.

But the effects of the emergency order were short-lived, since it expired at the end of the war.
In the 20 years that followed, Randolph had argued ceaselessly in Congress for a bill that would end discrimination in the workplace for good — but his efforts always fell short.

By 1963, Randolph realized his time was running out.

This year — the 100th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation — was the perfect moment to revive his original plan for a March on Washington, he decided. Only this one would be bigger, broader and more impossible to ignore than the one he'd put together in 1941.

Randolph had the support of many powerful trade unions in the northeast who were as frustrated as he was with the stubborn segregation in organized labor. But he also wanted to connect with the new wave of black activists in the South who were waging an all-out campaign against segregation in places like Alabama and Mississippi, led mainly by Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Their radical tactics of mass mobilization and direct-action coupled with Ghandian non-violence seemed to have touched a nerve in middle America.

Shocking images played out nightly on the news of peaceful protesters in Southern cities pelted with rocks, beaten by police and pummeled by gushing firehoses.

Freedom Riders — mixed groups of whites and blacks who rode together on interstate buses across the South to challenge segregated public transportation — were savaged by white mobs while police stood by, waiting to later arrest the activists for unlawful assembly and trespassing.

The man to pull both sides together for a march was Bayard Rustin, Randolph decided, a veteran Freedom Rider and acolyte of non-violent civil disobedience.

Rustin got to work right away, tapping the talent that lived alongside him in the Penn South building on 24th Street in Manhattan, a middle-income co-op built by the Ladies Garment Workers' Union.

He headed to the apartment of Norman and Velma Hill, a young married couple who worked for CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality, a key ally in the march.

Randolph also reached out to one of the most prominent black women in New York City: Anna Arnold Hedgeman.

Like Rustin, Hedgeman, 64, had strong connections to the civil rights group active in the South: CORE King and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee eventually headed by John Lewis.

She also convinced Randolph to reach out to Dorothy Height and other leaders in the black women's movement — a critical component if he wanted his march to be a success, she warned. Height was head of the National Council of Negro Women, believed to be the largest black organization in America at that time.

Within just a few days, in the spring of 1963, a rough sketch of the event emerged: a simple march to the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a few key speakers.

The official slogan was: "For Jobs and Freedom."

The key challenge would be securing a colossal turnout — and almost immediately, problems arose.
Roy Wilkins, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, didn't approve of the march.

The NAACP found itself frequently called to the South to bail out King and other activists — but Wilkins resented the sudden rise of the charismatic preacher, and found his tactics too radical for his tastes. The National Urban League, another well-established moderate civil rights group, was against the march for similar reasons. Without their buy-in, Randolph would be hard-pressed to get the historic turnout he wanted.

More worrisome still, Randolph had mortally insulted black women's groups by relegating them to a supporting role, with no voice among the march leadership or main speakers at the event itself. Threatened with a picketing protest by thousands of angry black women, Randolph hastened to make amends as best he could.

Randolph worked hard to broker peace and bring in established civil rights groups who could guarantee a diverse, large gathering, while King struggled with a leery White House. Kennedy worried that any bloodshed would derail efforts to get his civil rights bill through Congress.

King counted on the cachet of the "cultural community" to convince national leaders that the day wouldn't turn bloody, sending emissaries from among his entertainer friends in Hollywood.

Harry Belafonte got actors Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston to co-chair a Hollywood committee for the March on Washington, while Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were active ambassadors for the event. Belafonte and others kept a drumbeat of support going in Hollywood — and an open line of communication to President Kennedy.

As King and Randolph labored to coalesce the march from the top down, Rustin worked like a madman to build it from the ground up.

Based in New York City, where he had powerful support from local union heads like Cleveland Robinson from District 65, which repped dry goods workers, Rustin set up his main organizing shop at 170 West 130th St. in Harlem, the Utopia Neighborhood Clubhouse.

Rustin bounced between the Utopia, another office above the Apollo Theater on 125th Street, and satellite sites in various union headquarters around the city.

In each place, hundreds of volunteers manned the phones and clattered away at typewriters, furiously seeking donations and resources to put in place all the details needed for such a massive mobilization.

Rustin tracked down port-a-potties, signs, posters, box lunches, extra buses, trains and flights into D.C. — and plunked down $20,000 for a state-of-the- art sound system.

"I want everyone to hear the speeches as clearly as if they stood at the foot of the monument," Rustin said.

By early summer, it was obvious to President Kennedy as well as the leaders of mainstream civil rights groups that the march was taking on momentum, despite their opposition.

Things came to a head on July 2 — just two months' shy of the kickoff date. Kennedy convened Randolph, King, and the other march leaders at the White House, along with his brother Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, the heads of the NAACP and the Urban League and Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers.

It was Kennedy's last-ditch attempt to dissaude Randolph and King from a march he was sure would end in brutality.

King, who flew up from Alabama, and Randolph were at their persuasive best, according to Will Jones, history professor and author of "March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights."

There would be no fighting, Randolph said, because his marchers were "disciplined by struggle."

The meeting had the exact opposite effect that Kennedy intended — and when it was over, the NAACP, the Urban League and Reuther left the White House having agreed to join forces with King on Aug. 28.
Only Kennedy remained opposed — although he told the leaders he understood why they had to do it.

In the hours before the March on Washington began, D.C. was eerily quiet. All its bars had been shut down the night before by nervous city officials, and traffic on the street was light.

Inside the Hilton where the leadership was gathered, King was still not sure what he was going to say when he took to the podium at the end of the day to deliver the March on Washington's closing remarks.

King's neatly typed, three-page speech had been hastily put together — an amalgamation of rough drafts done at different times with input from different people.

Not included were the lines he'd used in Detroit six weeks earlier — a simple passage about his dream for desegregation that brought the group of black auto workers to its feet in wild approval.

It was the same reaction he'd gotten in 1961 when he'd broken into a similiar "I have a dream . " refrain at an AFL-CIO labor gathering.

There'd been no time in the past two months for King to sit down and craft the words and imagery to convey the immediacy of his struggle for civil rights in the South while also honoring Randolph's vision of this march as a call for economic justice.

But it was too late for King to change anything — already, at 9 a.m., arrivals were trickling past the reflecting pool with their chairs and blankets, and the private jet carrying Belafonte and his cadre of Hollywood performers from Los Angeles was on the ground.

Before long, Sidney Poitier, Bob Dylan, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter, Paul and Mary, and many other singers and actors were entertaining people as the National Mall filled.

By mid-morning, 1,500 buses had pulled into D.C., among them 400 charters from New York City and 400 from Philadelphia.

The Amtrak station was overflowing with 32 charter trains, with 14 coming from New York City alone.

The eager crowd swelled through the streets, impelling King, Randolph and other leaders forward as they marched along to the Lincoln Memorial.

The gathering was twice as large as Rustin had predicted — closer to 250,000 than 100,000 — and the atmosphere electrifying, yet undeniably peaceful.

As the immense wave of humanity settled around the Lincoln Memorial just after midday in the hot sun, Randolph took to the stage to speak, staring out at the mosaic of white, black and brown faces before him.

Overwhelmed and slightly fatigued, Randolph summoned what energy he could to greet the marchers as "the advance guard of a massive moral revolution."

For the next two hours, all the chief organizers of the march followed Randolph's example with militant calls for better access to jobs, education, housing and living wages. There were only a few short breaks for prayers from Rabbi Uri Miller and songs from Mahalia Jackson.

Finally, as the long rays of the afternoon sun stretched across the reflecting pool, King stepped up to the podium.

Unfurling his speech, he began to speak, his strong voice boooming over the rapt crowd.
As King worked his way through his historic lines — the "insufficient funds" in America's "bank of justice," the "sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent" and the "fierce urgency of now" — the crowd erupted with regular applause.

The clapping was appreciative, but after hours of listening to other talks on the same topic, tinged with just a touch of exhaustion. It wasn't what King had hoped for.

Just a few minutes in, he abandoned his script.

Urging the marchers to return home with the knowledge that "somehow this situation can and will be changed," King paused briefly, then let what his handlers called his "battle sermon" voice take over.

Speaking from memory, King launched into a variation of the "Dream" speech he'd given in Detroit weeks earlier — adding new flourishes off the cuff as the sleepy crowd started to come awake with cheers and calls of encouragement.

"I have a dream, that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood," King said, letting his voice soar and fall, gradually finding his preacher's cadence.

Before long, he'd hit what Belafonte called his "sure space," and what King himself called the "moment of divine intervention when God's got my tongue."

Riffing off a line in "My Country 'Tis of Thee," King led the suddenly bouyant crowd to the pinnacle of his extemporized speech, creating a defining moment for the Civil Rights movement.

"When we allow freedom to ring . we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"


Friend Reviews


Thank you!

I was so inspired by Dr. King. I followed his every move, in newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. As a freshman at American Baptist, I decided I wanted to act, too, to make a difference. I set my mind on transferring to Troy State College, an all-white public college in Troy, Ala., where I had been born, to challenge segregationist policies. I sent in my application with a transcript. I never heard a word from the school. Then I wrote to Dr. King about it and he invited me to come meet with him in Montgomery.

I remember it as if it were yesterday. I walked into the room and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Ralph Abernathy were standing there. Dr. King was behind the desk. He said, &ldquoAre you John Lewis? Are you the boy from Troy?&rdquo We had this wonderful, wonderful discussion. He said he would help me if I wanted to go to Troy, but I had to discuss it with my parents. They could lose their land. Their home could be bombed or burned. I did exactly what he said. My parents were supportive, but my mother was too afraid, so I decided to stay in Nashville and be in touch with Dr. King.

From time to time, he would come to American Baptist to speak, and I got involved with the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, the protests against segregated busing on interstate trips. The practice had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court but it was still widespread in the South, and we were going to change that. We planned to not only ride the buses across state lines but to use whites-only waiting rooms, restrooms, and lunch counters. We set out in May of 1961, on a trip that would go from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling.

The first few stops were uneventful, but when we got to South Carolina, we were met by angry segregationists and our trip grew increasingly violent. When we pulled into the Greyhound station in Montgomery, we were beaten by an angry mob. We took refuge in the First Baptist Church, the same church where I had first met Dr. King. He was always on the front lines, and he joined us from Chicago. It was getting very dangerous, with the crowd threatening to bomb the church, and Dr. King called Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who sent federal marshals and convinced Governor George Wallace to send the Alabama National Guard. Before dawn, we were put in jeeps and transferred to the home of a local businessman, all 21 of us, with Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy.

Dr. King stayed there with us for four nights. People came in and prepared food and we ate together. We came up with a plan to leave Montgomery and continue with the Freedom Ride. We sat on the floor, with pencils and pens, planning to resume our trip through Mississippi and then to New Orleans. We never made it to Louisiana. We were all arrested in Jackson, Miss. Later they took us to the state penitentiary in Parchman, Miss.

If it hadn&rsquot been for Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, I would probably not be an elected official today. These two young leaders lifted me, inspired me. I always felt&mdashI felt it then and I feel it now, almost 50 years later&mdashthat when these two young men were taken from us, something died in us. Something died in America. I think in some ways their lives, what they did and what they accomplished, inspired me to try and pick up where they left off. Dr. King taught us not to become bitter or hostile. He taught us to have faith. Dr. King taught us to be human, to treat our fellow human beings as we wish to be treated. We owe it to him to do so.


&ldquoWhen I was growing up, my mother and father and family members said, 'Don't get in trouble. Don't get in the way.' I got in trouble. I got in the way. It was necessary trouble.&rdquo

&ldquoSecond-class citizenship is not citizenship at all.&rdquo

&ldquoCourage is a reflection of the heart&mdashit is a reflection of something deep within the man or woman or even a child who must resist and must defy an authority that is morally wrong. Courage makes us march on despite fear and doubt on the road toward justice. Courage is not heroic but as necessary as birds need wings to fly. Courage is not rooted in reason but rather Courage comes from a divine purpose to make things right.&rdquo

&ldquoPeople around the world will not be inspired by our missiles and our guns they will be inspired by our ideas.&rdquo

&ldquoI have not accomplished everything I wanted to. I would like to, before I leave this little piece of real estate, do a little more for the cause of peace. To end the violence here at home and violence abroad. We spend so much of our resources killing each other.&rdquo

&ldquoWe were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal. We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back.&rdquo

&ldquoWhen Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, he helped free and liberate all of us.&rdquo

&ldquoI disagree with the court that the history of discrimination is somehow irrelevant today. The record clearly demonstrates numerous attempts to impede voting rights still exist, and it does not matter that those attempts are not as 'pervasive, widespread or rampant' as they were in 1965. One instance of discrimination is too much in a democracy.&rdquo

&ldquoImagine that. I was beaten near to death at the Rock Hill Greyhound bus terminal during the Freedom Rides in 1961. Now the police chief is Black.&rdquo

&ldquoWe all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about. In the struggle, we must seek more than civil rights we must work for the community of love, peace and true brotherhood. Our minds, souls and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all people.&rdquo

&ldquoI believe in nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living. I believe that this idea is one of those immutable principles that is nonnegotiable if you're going to create a world community at peace with itself.&rdquo

&ldquoI know maybe it won't happen in my lifetime, but I know somehow in some way we're going to create the Beloved Community, that we're going to create a national community, a world community that is at peace.&rdquo

&ldquoWhen we were organizing voter-registration drives, going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought&mdashI never dreamed&mdashof the possibility that an African American would one day be elected president of the United States.&rdquo


June 5, 2013

US Representative John Lewis speaks during a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013. (Manuel Balce Ceneta, File / AP Photo)

On March 7, 1965, John Lewis threw an apple, an orange, a toothbrush, some toothpaste and two books into his backpack, and prepared to lead a fifty-four-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The impromptu march was organized to call national attention to the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the South and to protest the death of a young civil rights activist shot by police during a demonstration in a neighboring town.

Ari Berman is working on a history of voting rights for Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Lewis’s group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had been trying to register voters in Selma since 1963. They hadn’t gotten very far. At the time of the march, only 383 of the 15,000 black residents in Selma’s Dallas County were registered to vote. At 25, Lewis had already been arrested twenty times by white segregationists and badly beaten during Freedom Rides in South Carolina and Montgomery.

On an overcast Sunday afternoon, Lewis and Hosea Williams, a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr., led some 600 local residents marching in two single-file lines. The streets of downtown Selma were eerily quiet. “There was no singing, no shouting—just the sound of scuffling feet,” Lewis wrote in his memoir. “There was something holy about it, as if we were walking down a sacred path. It reminded me of Gandhi’s march to the sea.” Lewis thought he would be arrested, but he had no idea that the ensuing events would dramatically alter the arc of American history.

As they crossed the Alabama River on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, Alabama state troopers descended on the marchers with batons and bullwhips some demonstrators were trampled by policemen on horseback, and the air was choked with tear gas. Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull from a clubbing, thought he was going to die. That evening, the prime-time network news played extensive footage of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” Those scenes “struck with the force of instant historical icon,” wrote historian Taylor Branch.

E ight days later, President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act before a joint session of Congress. “It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country,” Johnson said. On August 6, 1965, a hundred years after the end of the Civil War, the VRA became law. It quickly became known as the most important piece of civil rights legislation and one of the most consequential laws ever passed by Congress. The VRA led to the abolition of literacy tests and poll taxes made possible the registration of millions of minority voters by replacing segregationist registrars with federal examiners forced states with a history of voting discrimination to clear electoral changes with the federal government and laid the foundation for generations of minority elected officials, including Barack Obama. Lewis has the pen LBJ gave him after signing the VRA framed in his Atlanta home and a bust of the thirty-sixth president in his Washington office. “When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act,” Lewis said on a recent trip to Alabama, “he helped free and liberate all of us.”

Lewis, now a thirteen-term congressman from Atlanta, was a leading participant in nearly all of the pivotal events of the civil rights movement—the Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the Mississippi Freedom Summer. But his signature achievement is the VRA. Of all the surviving leaders of the movement, Lewis is most responsible for its passage and its overwhelming reauthorization four times by Congress. He is the soul of the voting rights movement and its most eloquent advocate. So many of his comrades from the civil rights years have died or drifted away, but Lewis remains as committed as ever to the fight to protect the right to vote. ”I feel like it’s part of my calling,” he says.

On March 3, Lewis returned to Selma for the forty-eighth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Thirty members of Congress accompanied him—part of a pilgrimage to Alabama that Lewis has led since 2000—along with Vice President Joseph Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Lewis locked arms with Biden and Luci Baines Johnson, LBJ’s youngest daughter, and once again marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Fifteen thousand people followed, some of whom would continue all the way to Montgomery. “Woke up this morning with my mind/ stayed on freedom,” activists sang as they climbed the bridge. At the top, high above the Alabama River, Lewis grabbed a bullhorn and retold the story of Bloody Sunday. “You have to tell the story over and over again to educate people,” Lewis told me. “It is my obligation to do what I can to complete what we started many, many years ago,” he said in Selma.

Every return to Selma is meaningful for Lewis, but this trip had special significance. Just four days before, Lewis had sat inside the Supreme Court as the justices heard a challenge to Section 5 of the VRA, which compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting, primarily in the South, to clear election-related changes with the federal government. (A decision in that case, Shelby County v. Holder, is expected at the end of June.) Lewis calls Section 5 the “heart and soul” of the law, and was deeply disturbed by the arguments from the Court’s conservative justices. “It appeared to me that several members of the Court didn’t have a sense of the history, what brought us to this point, and not just the legislative history and how it came about,” Lewis said afterward in his congressional office, which is decorated with iconic photographs of the civil rights movement. “They seemed to be somewhat indifferent to why people fought so hard and so long to get the act passed in the first place. And they didn’t see the need.”

Justice Antonin Scalia said the law represented a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that the federal government is discriminating against states like Alabama more than Alabama is discriminating against its own citizens. Chief Justice John Roberts implied that Massachusetts has a bigger problem with voting discrimination than Mississippi. Clarence Thomas, who as is customary didn’t speak, had already declared Section 5 unconstitutional in a previous decision.

Lewis called Scalia’s statement “shocking and unbelievable” and said he almost cried when he heard it. “So what happened to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments?” he asked, shaking his head. “What happened to the whole struggle to make it possible in the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first, for every person to be able to cast a free and open vote?”

Forty-eight years after Bloody Sunday, Lewis is once again in the fight of his life, with conservative officeholders resurrecting voter suppression methods not seen since the 1960s and Supreme Court justices asserting that the federal efforts to combat historic discrimination in voting—reforms that Lewis nearly died to win—are no longer needed. In January, he filed an amicus brief with the Court opposing the Shelby County challenge. It noted “the high price many paid for the enactment of the Voting Rights Act and the still higher cost we might yet bear if we prematurely discard one of the most vital tools of our democracy.”

L ewis grew up a hundred miles southeast of Selma, in the rural Alabama Black Belt near Troy. He was the third of ten kids his parents farmed cotton, corn and peanuts. Their farmhouse had no electricity, running water or insulation. He was a bookish, devout child who wore ties and preached to his chickens, sneaking away from the fields to attend school. His life changed when, at 15, he heard about the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955 and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. (who quickly became his idol) preaching on the radio.

While at college in Nashville, Lewis played an instrumental role in the sit-ins and Freedom Rides that hastened the demise of Jim Crow. “I was like a soldier in a nonviolent army,” he says. He soon became the movement’s field commander, assuming chairmanship of SNCC in 1963. “John was probably the most committed person I’ve ever met,” says South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, who met Lewis at a SNCC conference in 1960. A lifelong adherent of peaceful resistance, Lewis saw his mission as “bringing the Gandhian way into the belly of the Black Belt.”

Lewis became head of the Voter Education Project in 1970, which took the lead in registering black voters in the South after the VRA’s passage. The VEP registered 2 million voters from 1970 to 1977, including Lewis’s mother and father. The group distributed posters that read: “Hands that pick cotton…can now pick our elected officials.” In 1986, Lewis won election to the US House from Atlanta, defeating his close friend Julian Bond. “Vote for the tugboat, not the showboat” was one of his slogans. Lewis became known as “the conscience of Congress,” with an unmatched stature on civil rights. “I don’t think I’ve seen anybody in the movement that carries the moral cachet that John Lewis has,” says Clyburn.

Lewis initially endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008, based on their close friendship, but viewed Obama’s election as a culmination of what he and so many others had put their lives on the line for. “Because of what you did, Barack Obama is the president of the United States,” Lewis said in Selma following Obama’s 2008 victory, on the forty-fourth anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

Lewis knew the president would be attacked because of his race, but the full-scale assault on voting rights that followed the 2010 midterm elections caught him and other movement veterans off-guard. More than a dozen states, including critical battlegrounds like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, adopted new laws to restrict access to the ballot—all of which disproportionately affected communities of color. “I was naïve to think voting rights were untouchable,” says Bond, former chair of the NAACP. “I didn’t dream that Republicans would be as bold and as racist as they are.”

Lewis saw the restrictions as an obvious ploy to suppress the power of the young and minority voters who formed the core of Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant” in 2008. “It was a deliberate, well-greased and organized attempt to stop this progress,” he says. “They saw all these people getting registered as a threat to power.”

In July 2011, when few were paying attention to the issue, Lewis delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor about the right to vote. “Voting rights are under attack in America,” Lewis told the nearly empty chamber in his deep baritone. “There’s a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.” He called voter-ID laws a poll tax—a year before Attorney General Holder would make the same comparison—and recalled how, before passage of the VRA, blacks who attempted to register in the South were required to guess the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of jellybeans in a jar. “We must not step backward to another dark period in our history,” Lewis warned. “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society.” To combat voter suppression, Lewis sponsored the Voter Empowerment Act, which would add millions of voters to the rolls and increase turnout by modernizing registration, mandating early voting and adopting Election Day registration.

On the last night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which took place just twenty-five miles from where Lewis was beaten as a Freedom Rider in Rock Hill, South Carolina, he implored the faithful to “march to the polls like never, ever before.” By that time, civil rights activists, the Obama administration and the judiciary had heeded his warning on voting rights, as ten major restrictive laws were blocked in court under the VRA and federal and state protections. “The election of 2012,” Lewis said on MSNBC, “dramatized…the need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”

Lewis spent the pivotal Sunday before the election campaigning in Ohio for Obama. The Ohio GOP had tried to prevent early voting three days before the election, but the Obama campaign had successfully sued to reinstate those days. As he approached the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati, Lewis saw the line of voters stretching for nearly a mile around city blocks, with hundreds waiting for hours in the damp cold. “This is very, very moving,” Lewis said as he walked the line. “This is living testimony that people who tried to make it hard and difficult and who put up stumbling blocks and roadblocks—it’s just not working.”

The successful resistance to voter suppression may be the most important story of the 2012 election. Compared with 2008, 1.7 million more blacks, 1.4 million more Hispanics and 550,000 more Asians went to the polls, versus 2 million fewer whites. The turnout rate among black voters exceeded that of whites for the first time on record, according to the Census Bureau. While the turnout rate fell among nearly every demographic group, the largest increase came from blacks 65 and over. Those, like Lewis, who had lived through the days when merely trying to register could get you killed were the people most determined to defend their rights last year.

Yet Lewis viewed Obama’s re-election as only a temporary victory, given the challenge to Section 5 before the Supreme Court. The mood in Selma during this year’s anniversary of Bloody Sunday was more somber than celebratory. “Here we are, forty-eight years after all you did, and we’re still fighting?” Biden said in Selma. “In 2011, ‘12 and ‘13? We were able to beat back most of those attempts in the election of 2012, but that doesn’t mean it’s over.” After Holder cited the continued importance of Section 5 in combating discrimination, the crowd at the foot of the bridge chanted, in what had to be a first, “Section 5! Section 5!”

“When it comes to voting rights,” says Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, “you realize the past isn’t the past.”

O n May 20, 1961, Lewis and two dozen Freedom Riders traveling through the South to desegregate interstate bus travel were assaulted by a frenzied mob at the Greyhound station in Montgomery. Lewis was struck over the head with a Coca-Cola crate and left lying unconscious in a pool of blood. The Freedom Riders sought refuge at the First Baptist Church, disguising themselves as members of the choir to avoid police scrutiny. Three thousand white supremacists surrounded the church the next night and hurled Molotov cocktails through the stained-glass windows. “That night was unbelievable,” Lewis recalls. “I thought some of us would die.” After tortured deliberation, President John Kennedy sent in federal marshals to escort the Freedom Riders to safety.

This past March 2, when Lewis returned to First Baptist Church with 200 guests, Chief Kevin Murphy, head of the Montgomery Police Department, unexpectedly apologized to him. “We enforced unjust laws,” Murphy said. It was the first apology Lewis had ever received from a law enforcement official, after forty arrests and countless near-death experiences. They embraced, as the congregation cheered and wept, and Murphy gave Lewis his badge. “Chief Murphy, my brother, I accept your apology,” Lewis responded. “I don’t think I’m worthy of this.” Then he joked, “Actually, do you think I could get another?” Lewis kept the badge in his pocket for days. “I want to say to all of you here, it shows the power of love, the power of peace, the power of nonviolence,” he said.

The Montgomery Advertiser featured Murphy’s apology on its front page. Next to it, however, was a story about how, if the Supreme Court overturns Section 5, Republicans would likely dismantle the majority-black legislative districts protected under the act, which illustrates the South’s continuing racial divide. Obama, the article noted, won 95 percent of the black vote in Alabama last year, but only 15 percent of the white vote. “Whites won’t vote for blacks in Alabama,” said State Senator Hank Sanders of Selma. “That’s the state of race relations.”

Indeed, despite powerful moments of reconciliation, the South is far from a post-racial utopia. Six of the nine states fully covered by Section 5, all in the South, passed new voting restrictions after the 2010 election. “Section 5,” write law professors Christopher Elmendorf and Douglas Spencer, “is remarkably well tailored to the geography of anti-black prejudice.” Of the ten states where anti-black stereotypes are most common, based on data from the National Annenberg Election Survey, six in the South are subject to Section 5. Racially polarized voting and “explicit anti-black attitudes,” according to an AP survey, have increased since 2008. Arkansas and Virginia have passed strict new voter-ID laws this year, while North Carolina is considering a slew of draconian restrictions.

“Places like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, they forget recent history,” Lewis said. “We’re not talking about something that took place a hundred years ago, but a few short years ago. And some of it is still going on today. And if you get rid of Section 5 of the VRA, many of these places, whether it be state, county or town, will slip back into the habits of the past.”

Against this backdrop, it’s shocking that the Supreme Court appears to be leaning toward overturning the centerpiece of the country’s most important civil rights law. Last year, Lewis found out that his great-great-grandfather had registered and voted after becoming an emancipated slave following the Civil War, during Reconstruction—something that Lewis could not do until 100 years later, after the passage of the VRA. He wept when he heard the news. It underscored how delicate the right to vote has been throughout American history. If the Court upholds Section 5, as it has in four prior opinions, Lewis’s legacy will be cemented. And if the Court eviscerates it, Lewis’s voice will be needed as never before. n

Ari Berman Twitter Ari Berman is a former senior contributing writer for The Nation.


How John Lewis and Other Civil Rights Crusaders Expected Arrests - HISTORY

A Black Agenda Radio Commentary by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

John Lewis was a hero 52 years ago. What’s he doing nowadays with his Lifetime Civil Rights Hero pass? He’s a 14 term Atlanta congressman with nary a word to say on gentrification or the privatization of schools, roads, nature and the commons. He’s a pacifist with a US Navy ship named after him who votes for the NSA, Pentagon budgets, and re-arming apartheid Israel. Now his sainthood is useful again. But to whom and for what?